The Benin Empire, also known as the Benin Kingdom, was a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria.Its capital was Edo, now known as Benin City in Edo state, South-south Nigeria.
Benin City should not be confused with the modern-day Republic of Benin, formerly the Republic of Dahomey. The Benin Kingdom was “one of the oldest and most highly developed states in the coastal hinterland of West Africa, dating perhaps to the eleventh century CE” until it was annexed by the British Empire in 1897.
The original people and founders of the Benin Kingdom, the Edo people, were initially ruled by the Ogiso (Kings of the Sky) who called their land Igodomigodo.
The first Ogiso (Ogiso Igodo), wielded much influence and gained popularity as a good ruler. He died after a long reign and was succeeded by Ere, his eldest son.
In the 12th century, a great palace intrigue erupted and crown prince Ekaladerhan, the only son of the last Ogiso was sentenced to death as a result of the first Queen (who was barren) deliberately changing an Oracle message to the Ogiso. In carrying out the order of the palace, the palace messengers had mercy on the prince who was then set free at Ughoton, near Benin. When his father the Ogiso (Owodo) died, the Ogiso dynasty ended. The people and royal kingmakers preferred their king’s son as natural next in line to rule. The exiled Prince Ekaladerhan had changed his name to Izoduwa meaning ‘I have chosen the part of prosperity’ and found his way to Uhe (Ile-Ife).
It was during this period of confusion the elders led by Oliha mounted a search for the banished Prince Ekaladerhan whom the Ife people will now be called Oduduwa. Oduduwa, who could not return due to old age, granted them Oranmiyan, his son, to rule over them. Oranmiyan was resisted by Ogiamien Irebor, one of the palace chiefs and he had to live in the palace built for him at Usama by the Benin elders (now a coronation shrine).
Soon after his arrival, he married a beautiful Edo lady, Erinmwinde, daughter of Ogie-Egor, the ninth Enogie (Duke) of Egor, by whom he had a son. After some years of residing in Benin, he called a meeting of the people and renounced his office, remarking that the country was a land of vexation, IleIbinu Yoruba words (by which name the people was thenceforth known by non-Edo people) and that only a child born, trained and educated in the arts and mysteries of the land could reign over the people.
He caused his son born to him by Erinmwinde to be made King in his place and returned to Yoruba land Ile-Ife. His son whom he left behind was deaf and dumb, and the elders recoursed to Oranmiyan who gave them charmed seeds “omo ayo” to play with which will make him talk.
The little Oranmiyan played with the seeds with his peers at Egor his mother’s hometown. While playing with the seeds he announced “Owomika” meaning ‘my hands catch it’ in Yoruba but corrupted to ‘Eweka’ by the Edos. This is why every Oba of Benin is mandated to live for seven days in Usama and announce his name at Egor. Eweka thus started the Oba dynasty.
Oranmiyan was also the founder of Oyo Empire where he ruled supreme as the first Aalafin of Oyo and proceeded to ile life to become the 6th Ooni of life while his descendant’s ruled in Ile Ife, Oyo, and Benin.
By the 15th century, Benin had expanded into a thriving city-state.
The twelfth Oba in line, Oba Ewuare the Great (1440–1473) would expand the city-state’s territories to surrounding regions.
DO YOU KNOW ?
*One of the oldest surviving kingdoms in the world is the Great Benin Kingdom reputed to be about 2054 years Old.
*The Ogiso dynasty lasted for about 854 years plus an interregnum of 285 years between the reign of Ogiso Orire and Ogiso Odia, there was an interregnum of 70 years between Ogiso Owodo and Oba Oranmiyan plus 845 years of Oba ruler-ship till date.
*The progenitor of the Benin race is known by the earliest Benin oral documentary as “PA IDU”
*Great Benin kingdom has been ruled by 72 kings (documented), 21 kings (undocumented), two documented administrators (Evian and Agho Obaseki)and about 12 undocumented administrators
*The First Storey Building in Nigeria was built at Ughoton (known as Gwatto by the British explorers) by the Dutch in the year 1718, and it was called “The Factory”. The building was destroyed by the British during the war against the Benins in 1897. The site of the building is still intact.
*The Oldest Church in West-Africa was established in Great Benin Empire by the Earliest Portuguese missionaries in the 16th Century which is today known as the Holy Aruosa (Benin National Church). Pope Pius XII visited Benin and handed the church to the Oba of Benin, Oba Oreoghene in 1692AD.
*In ancient times there were no doors in Great Benin because it was so secure that the people didn’t bother about doors and windows.
*The first Known Embassy Established in Nigeria was in Benin during the reign of Oba Esigie in the 16th century.
*Oba Orhogbua is the first literate king ever recorded in the present day West-Africa.
*The Oldest known letter written in Nigeria was by Duarte Pires as instructed by Oba Esigie, which was addressed to King John II, on the 20th of October, 1516AD. The second oldest letter was written by Antonio Domingo (Great-grand Son of Oba Olua) to the Pope to seek for missionary assistance to spread Christianity in Benin Empire in 1652AD.
*Oba Orhogbua (1547–1580) founded Lagos and planted a dukedom, the Obaship of Lagos (Eko).
*Oba Orhogbua is the first Sailor king in the present day West-Africa.
*The last Ogiso palace was located in the present day Ring-Road where the National museum is sited and it was called “Ogbe Ogiso”
*One of the oldest ever markets historically acknowledged in Africa is Ogiso (Agbado) Market dated about 60BCE.
*Onitcha (also spelt Onitsha) town was founded by a member of the Benin royal house who migrated during Oba Esigie’s reign. Scores of towns and communities in most parts of the Niger Delta trace their lineages or origins to the ancient Benin Empire.
*The first ever recorded bank (Owigho) in present day West-Africa was built in Benin kingdom by Oba Eresoyen, construction started in the year 1740AD and was completed in the year 1743AD.
*Isi Aghadahomen, corrupted as Dahomey was a name of Esan General who led Benin warriors to conquer present day republic of Benin. The country was named in 1975 after their former colonial master, the Great Benin Kingdom.
*Oba Esigie created the school of astrology (Iwoki) and was the first man to speak a foreign language (Portuguese) in Nigeria in the year 1518AD.
*Queen Idia (Oba Esigie mother) is the first Oba’s mother to be alive to see her son become an Oba. That’s because traditionally previous Crown prince mothers were killed before their Sons ascend the throne. One of the world’s most famous masks – the Queen Idia mask – was the ‘mascot’ of 2nd black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC 77) held in Lagos in 1977.
*The King of Benin could, in a single day, make 20,000 men ready for war, and, if need be, 180,000. And because of this, he had great influence among all the surrounding peoples … His authority stretches over many cities, towns and villages. There is no King thereabouts who, in the possession of so many beautiful cities and towns, in his capital” – Olfert Dapper, description of Africa, 1668.
*The Guinness Book of Records (1974 edition) described the walls of Benin City and its surrounding kingdom as the world’s largest earthworks carried out prior to the mechanical era. According to estimates by the New Scientist’s Fred Pearce, Benin City’s walls were at one point “four times longer than the great wall of China, and consumed a hundred times more material than the Great Pyramid of Cheops”. Benin City was surrounded by massive walls dug by Oba Oguola in the 13th century and Oba Ewuare I in the 15th century. The Great Wall of Benin extended for some 16,000km in all, in a mosaic of more than 500 interconnected settlement boundaries. They covered 6, 500sq km and were all dug by the Edo people. The Great wall of Benin (perhaps the largest single archaeological phenomenon on the planet) took an estimated 150million man-hours of digging to construct.
*Benin City is the first City to have a semblance of street lighting in the world as recorded by Dutch explorers in the 16th century. Early Portuguese explorers named the city the “Great City of Benin” because they were astonished with what they saw the Edo people had achieved centuries before any major cities they had visited in the 15th century. 1n 1691, the Portuguese ship captain Lourenco Pinto observed: “Great Benin, where the king resides, is larger than Lisbon; all the streets run straight and as far as the eyes can see.”
*Oba Ewuare I conquered more than 201 towns and villages during his reign. This remarkable feat earned him the title Ewuare Ogidigan (Ewuare the great).
*Ga tribe of present day Ghana migrated from Benin during Oba Udagbedo’s reign (1299-1334)
*Ohen Okun, the Olokun priest of Ughoton is the first known diplomat of present-day Nigerian origin to Europe. He was sent as a Benin ambassador by Oba Esigie in the year 1526AD, and thus became the first man to be exposed to western education. Affonso .D. Aveiro was the first recorded ambassador from Europe to Benin and the first European ambassador in Nigeria.
*Olu Atuwatse (Dom Domingo) Son of Crown Prince Ginuwa and grand Son of Oba Olua who was sent to Portugal in 1601 for advanced studies by his Grandfather, the reigning Oba, graduated from the University of Coimbra in 1611. He was the first person to obtain a European university degree in present day Nigeria. He later married the daughter of a Portuguese noble, Dona Feirs. Their son, Antonio Domingo (referred to in Benin History as the Golden Skinned king) succeeded him on the throne in 1643.
*Oba Esigie is the first King in Africa to be baptized in the year 1504AD.in Benin.
*The Benins are world renowned bronze casters (Igun – eronmwon) in the world. Igun Street still habours the historically and globally acclaimed bronze casters till date.
* Prior to present day civilization/infrastructural developments, ten gates/ roads historically led into Benin City. They are: 1). Akpakpava (Ikpoba) Road 2). Irhuase (Ogba). 3). Imose(Sapele). 4). Okhoro Road 5). Ughoton Road 6). Udo Road 7). Ugbor Road 8). Uhunmwun Idunmwun Road 9). Uselu (Oyesunu) Road. 10). Utantan (Esokponba) Road. The roads are still in existence till date.
Source: Institute For Benin Studies
Compiled by Henry Osa Omoregie